With trust in the European institutions at one of its lowest ebbs, Socialists and Democrats leader, Udo Bullmann, sat down with New Europe’s Irene Kostaki to discuss how the party plans to rebuild Europeans’ confidence in the EU family

New Europe (NE): After the Progressive Society tabled a holistic plan ahead of the European elections, will Frans Timmermans be able to take this plan forward provided that he has already been a part of the European Commission? Are the EU institutions ready for reform?

Udo Bullmann (UB): We will formally decide that on December 7-8, but we can call him the designated Spitzenkandidat. We had a three-hour discussion within the group, with questions and answers, and Frans Timmermans proved himself to be, as we expected, a real fighter for our social democratic values. We have no doubt that we are going into a strong campaign and that we have the best chances for an excellent result…to be a strong group afterwards and have a strong European Commission under his leadership.

After all, who else will be the one to defend freedom and democracy in the EU if not Timmermans? Who else would have already opened up the debate for sustainability and the transformation of the European economies and societies? I know that this is close to his heart.

NE: We have different political parties looking at the Spitzenkandidat process differently. The PES decided to have a single runner-up for the position after Maroš Šefčovič withdrew from the race. The Greens have a lead duo, and ALDE will have a team. What do you think about the process? Do you think the Spitzenkandidat process will survive in the European Council?

UB: I think the Spitzenkandidat process is an essential element of the democratisation of the EU and that the major parties are doing very well to follow that this time also because this is the chance of the European people to directly influence what is going to happen in the election day.

NE: Let’s go back to the roadmap to resolve the social and ecological crisis. Will it help to connect citizens to Europe? People feel quite disconnected to Brussels, leading to a great rise of populist rhetoric, blaming the EU for everything. What is the plan for taking the discussion forward?

UB: Of course, we are in front of transformational changes, climate change, the digital economy and the chances and dangers in that. It’s also worldwide migration, an element of the modern world. We have big – big challenges and we see that people are threatened with losing control of their lives. 

We, the progressives, say yes, let’s regain control of our lives for the development of a good society. But this cannot be done in a backward nationalistic way. It can only be done in a progressive European way.

What we would like to deliver is a map of how do build this Europe in a sustainable way to the benefit and well-being of all, to make sure that nobody is left behind. From there we come to discuss the sustainability goals of the UN’s 2030 agenda.  We say let’s stop talking about the economy if not talking about the environment and let’s also stop talking about greening the economy without talking about the social dimension. The new future has to be for everybody, not for the happy few. Let’s unite behind a concept of sustainable radical change towards a better Europe that can also be a shining light for the whole globe…for how to develop economic trade, economic relations, and to be partners to other continents.

NE: Who could also join the Social Democrats?

UB: First of all, we have done a whole lot of work in this independent Commission under the leadership of Louka Katseli and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, where we reached out with our new tool progressive society – to trade unions, experts, researchers, to the academic, civic movements – to get their expertise, commitment and support – but also to get their criticism. This is an open dialogue within a progressive society, and we permanently try to improve and invite everybody who is pro-European. We don’t shy away from an open discussion with people and also with groups to share our beliefs.

NE: What do you expect the S&D’s future in the European Parliament and all other EU Institutions to be? Will the elections in six months affect the group’s size?

UB: The elections, first of all, are a good opportunity to communicate with people about our political goals and if what we propose for the forthcoming European Commission has the ability to inspire people and to reconnect them to Europe and to make them identify with our European goals. It is our Europe that has to be defended but has also to be changed in the best interests of everybody. So for this forthcoming election, first and foremost is a chance for communication and gaining support from citizens.

NE: On to Brexit, how is this change for Europe translated for you? Does it mean more unity for the EU-27? Will it give new life to the European Parliament?

UB: First of all, what we could see during the negotiations is that it was not possible to split the EU on Brexit issues. This was an achievement itself, Europe stood united. Secondly, it avoided selling out European values and assets during this negotiation process. Thirdly, and perhaps this is my main point, I have not given up my hope that the British people will find a chance to express their real opinion after being betrayed by fake news during the last referendum. So I have not given up hope that the voice of the British people will be announced to declare that their real role is to remain and to stay within the EU without any Brexit solution, which is a lose-lose game for everybody.

What are the Progressives’ proposals for more transparency within the institution of the European Parliament? Transparency of spending – allowances, MEP office expenses, etc, as it is a big part of criticism towards the Institution.

UB: We are more transparent in our deliberations than most of the Parliaments of this world. If you would like to follow a conversation in a Committee, you just go on the web and stream…then you can identify who is voting for what issue. The MEPs’ expenses can be very easily clarified because you have different types and they follow concrete rules. If you are talking about general allowances, many countries have  lump sums that are not normally due to a specific reporting, but that is up to the European Parliament to decide how we would like to regulate that. We will do our outmost to be clear on that and to defend the independent mandate and on the other hand to inform all citizens appropriately in which way we deal with public resources.

NE: What are your thoughts about the European Parliament seat issue in Strasbourg? Do you have any thoughts on what should happen in the mid/long term?

UB: The huge majority of the European Parliament is arguing for one seat, and I think this is very prudent.